As Lord Hardie continues with his inquiry into what went wrong with the Edinburgh trams, I admit that, as someone who supported the project, I was wrong.
I’m not going as far as saying that the principle wasn’t a good one, or that trams don’t move large numbers of people efficiently on congested routes. But I was wrong to believe that Edinburgh council could deliver such a major project. Clearly it could not, and certainly not on budget and on time. And I thought, perhaps hoped, that it could. Soon we will have the benefit of Lord Hardie’s detailed analysis of what went wrong.
This month has shown up a few other expectations to be dramatically and painfully wrong. Dire predictions four years ago that austerity would lead to dramatic job losses have proved spectacularly wrong. Ed Miliband predicted austerity would lead to a jobs Armageddon – instead we have a jobs boom. UK employment is up 1.7 million in the last five years (and 1.5m of these jobs are full time). At 72.1 per cent the Edinburgh figures (last year’s data) are also on the up.
The fall in unemployment has also confounded the experts and their predictions. In the UK those claiming Jobseekers Allowance fell by 30 per cent last year alone. In Edinburgh the latest figures have fallen 2.5 per cent to 1.7 per cent over a year – another dramatic fall of 32 per cent.
The predictions of economists (and many politicians) lie in tatters. The news that we have zero inflation and an economy which is performing better than any country in Europe is great, especially for those on low incomes.
Where else is there good news in the predictions being wrong? Energy prices for one. The doomsayers were expecting dramatically increasing energy prices. The world is awash with a plentiful supply of fossil fuels and the dramatic progress in extracting shale gas has caused oil prices to nosedive and home fuel bills to fall. (Edinburgh council, alas, is foolishly jumping on a bandwagon by moving to ban shale gas and its very considerable benefits – though it is more a token of gesture politics.)
Last week I received my household annual fuel statement. The significant (and unpredicted) fall in wholesale gas prices by one third in just 16 months is beginning to percolate through to bills despite the growing green taxes across the economy.
Oh, and for those of you worried about CO2 emissions from fossil fuels causing a temperature Thermageddon, there is increasing evidence that the link between CO2 and temperature has been overstated. The dire predictions of rapidly rising temperature have thus far proved spectacularly wrong. Certainly, none of us knows what climate the future will bring, but there is no doubting that global temperature has stabilised for almost two decades and an increase in extreme weather has failed to materialise. In the meantime rising CO2 levels seem to be helping greening the planet and crop yields are increasing. And that means cheaper food prices and a continuing fall in the numbers of people globally in absolute poverty.
How can experts and decision takers get predictions so wrong? It certainly matters, as the example the tram debacle illustrates. Experts, like the rest of us, sometimes have a bias which overlooks the reality and the unknowns. Perhaps I hoped Edinburgh could manage the tram project when all around there is evidence it could not. That is an optimism bias. All the other examples I have quoted have been dominated by experts and politicians with a pessimism bias.
I subscribe to the view of Winston Churchill that experts should be on tap not on top. Especially with predictions.
Councillor Cameron Rose is Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council